Thursday 12 April 2012

Happiness On Trial – Part II

By Artur Suski, S.J.

In my last blog (“Happiness on Trial I”), I presented two ideas of the Christian vocation. You are all very familiar with the first: “I want to be happy!” The Christian strives above all for her happiness. St. Thomas – with “a little help from his friend”, that is, Aristotle – states that the Christian will only be happy if she lives according to her human nature, and to truly live according to human nature, she is to be a ‘reasonable’ person; in other words, to use her reason. St. Thomas, of course, goes further than Aristotle: not only are we to use our noggin properly, we are also to contemplate God’s truths. We, however, will only be complete and truly fulfilled when we see God face to face. But it is not that simple … it is only when we live virtuous lives that we will be properly disposed to ascend to this glorious beatific vision!

So, what is wrong with this model? I’ve pointed out in my last post, using Bl. Duns Scotus’ reasoning, that this is too “me-centred”. Check out what Hans Urs von Balthasar says about this: “Now, if according to St. Thomas, God is the indispensable One, that without which the hunger for happiness cannot attain its end, is not there in this concept the danger of turning God inadvertently into an end? … In this perspective, God can certainly be the end of the human being – a desired end perhaps sought out through asceticism and mystical passion, with a scrupulous observance of the Commandments – but at the end of the day, it will be my end, it promises my ultimate fulfillment.”

This brings us to a second idea of the Christian vocation, in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s own words: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” (Spiritual Exercises, no. 23) The Christian is called by the Father to participate in the mission of the Son – each of us has a particular part to play in Jesus’ mission that still continues here on earth. Just as Jesus embraced his mission out of love for the Father, so we too must delve into our mission out of love. St. Ignatius ends the Spiritual Exercises with “The contemplation to attain the love of God.” (Sp. Ex., 230-237) It is love that is ultimately at the core of the Christian vocation. We can only accept the Lord’s call and accomplish our mission if we fall in love with the Lord and his creation. Only then can we “in all things love and serve the Divine Majesty.” (Sp. Ex., 233)

This service is to be so completely self-consuming that we must give to this service our complete selves – a kenosis (emptying) that requires our all. In the words of von Balthasar, “your salvation [and we can also say here ‘the goal of the Christian life’] does not consist in liberating your ‘I’ but rather, in offering your ‘I’ incessantly for others: and this, without pain and without the cross, cannot be.” This is a difficult task – but don’t for a moment think that you’re exempt!

It is this kenosis that is at the heart of the Christian vocation. Indeed, it may seem like folly to the world, and surely it would have seemed absurd to the Greeks and perhaps to some Christian thinkers, but it is authentic and true because it is the archetype, Jesus himself, who set this example. He first emptied himself for our sake on the cross out of love; He, in service, washed the disciples’ feet and commanded them to do likewise (to serve others): “If I then, the Lord and the teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” (Jn 13: 14-15) In the end, for von Balthasar, the Christian in his vocation ought  “to want the concrete will of God, which is the configuration of man to the image of his crucified Son...which leads to the Cross through kenosis, obedience, ‘becoming one for many’ (Phil 2:7 ff).”


  1. Ah, but you are forgetting that St Thomas sees God as a community end:

    "But to love the good of any society involves a twofold consideration: first, the manner in which it is obtained; secondly, the manner in which it is preserved. But to love the good of any society so that it might be had or possessed, does not constitute the political good. Thus does a tyrant love the good of the state in order to dominate it, which is to love himself more than the state; for he desires this good for himself, not for the state. But to love the good of the state so that it might be preserved and defended, this is indeed to love the state, and this constitutes the political good. So much is this so, that men would expose themselves to dangers of death or neglect their own private good, in order to preserve or increase the good of the state. Therefore, to love the good in which the blessed participate so that it might be had or possessed does not make man well-disposed toward beatitude, because the wicked also desire this good. But to love that good for its own sake in order that it might remain and be made wide-spread, and that nothing might act against that good, this does dispose man well toward that society of the blessed. This is charity, which loves God for His own sake, and loves fellow-men who are capable of attaining beatitude as it loves itself; charity resists every hindrance both in itself and in others; charity can never exist with mortal sin, that obstacle to beatitude. Therefore it is clear that charity is not only a virtue, but even the most powerful of the virtues. (

  2. I'm not sure I follow your argument. To me both ideas of vocation are just different sides of the same coin. It is by serving God that we attain happiness, and this service clearly involves the call to mission and evangelisation as we can see in numerous passages within the Bible. I don't think even St. Thomas would refute these points...? Or is that what you're arguing?

    1. Dear FC2000,
      What I was attempting in my blog was to answer the question: for the sake of what do we do all these things? (loving God, going on mission, etc.) Does he serve to be happy, or is he happy because he serves?

      The Aristotelian model is concerned with the perfection of the human being - we have received body and soul from the Lord and our vocation is to perfect that which we have received, and by this we will have attained our end. Aquinas follows Aristotle in arguing that happiness is a complete (teleia, perfectus) and self-sufficient good (EA [Aquinas' commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics] 1.9 no.107). "A complete [perfectum] good is said to be self-sufficient if it cannot receive an augmentation of good through the addition of any good thing." (EA 1.9 no. 115) Furthermore, a good is complete if and only if it is always chosen for its own sake and never for the sake of something else (EA 1.9 nos. 109-111). We are then faced with the issue at hand: is happiness (perfection of human nature) chosen as the end (telos) or is God chosen as the end? Or perhaps…can one choose both simultaneously?

      To by happy is to properly function according to our human nature: being a thinking being (reasoning), being a spiritual being (praying, adoring God), being a loving being (loving God and neighbour). But above all, it is to use our intellect well, especially in the contemplation of the Truth (i.e., God). (EA 10.10 no. 2097; 10.11 nos. 2101-2104). Intellect is that which is most fundamental in human beings (EA 10.11 no. 2110; 10.12 no. 2116; 10.13 nos. 2135-2136), and so the life most appropriate for a human being is the life of intellectual activity (10.11 nos. 2105-2110).

      In this contemplation man comes close to happiness, yet here on earth this is impossible to attain because we cannot continually contemplate God - we have other obligations and there are too many distractions in the world. That's why there are three levels of happiness for Aquinas:

      H1: Happiness of the active life, the happiness of the life lived according to the moral virtues
      H2: Earthly, superhuman happiness, the contemplative life of an embodied soul that requires some external goods
      H3: Superhuman happiness to the fullest extent, the beatitude involving one's speculative intellect and one's resurrected body.

      In short: “In human beings, as regards the condition of this present life, the final perfection accords with an activity by which a human is joined to God; but this activity cannot be continuous...on account of this, in the condition of this present life, perfect happiness cannot be possessed by a human being. . . . Consequently the active life, which is occupied with many things, fits the definition of happiness less than the contemplative life which is occupied with one thing." (ST 1-2.3.2 ad 4)

      It is true that in this model the individual loves God and neighbour, and also goes on mission, etc., but what needs to be pointed out is that in the hierarchy of goods, for Aquinas, the highest is one’s own personal perfection (the intellectual-contemplative life). As to the community and the common good, all of the moral virtues are directed to the common good, which is desired because it provides the individual with the opportunity of contemplating the truth (EA 10.11, no. 2101-2102). Hence the immediate goals of the active life are themselves desired for the sake of the contemplation of the truth, and so the active life is not complete, and so not the truly happy one (EA, no. 2102).

      This is a far cry from von Balthasar as I have presented his writings. What is the primary concern is participating in Christ’s mission in the world, i.e., to reconcile God with man, and man with man. Our vocation therefore is explicitly associated with mission and imitating Christ in that mission. Happiness may be given if it is God’s desire, but that should not be our motivation.